Rango is weird. He has surreal dreams, wears a Hawaiian shirt, puts on little dramas in his terrarium with a windup toy fish, and has a chorus of mariachi owls singing a lament of his demise. The animated movie from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski is quirky to say the least. Nevertheless, the wonderfully un-cute characters, combined with a clever, grown-up script, and some vivid animation makes for a movie that surprised me with how much I loved it (especially since it was also a Western — a genre which I am not predisposed to like). Main character Rango (voiced with rapid-fire whimsy by Johnny Depp) is a pet chameleon who gets tossed out of the back seat onto a dusty road in the middle of the Nevada desert. The movie might have gone in the typical direction of having Rango set off on a quest to be reunited with his owner if it weren’t for an armadillo who directs Rango to take his quest for water to the nearby town of Dirt. When he gets there, all the elements of the movie western kicks in. He goes to a saloon and tells tall tales to impress the locals, and when a hawk attack sends even the toughest characters to find shelter, Rango accidently kills the hawk, leading to his being hired as the town sheriff. As the local lawman, Rango needs to bungle his way through, making sure not to expose his own lack of skill while the town struggles with the attack of neighbouring gangs, and a suspicious lack of water supply.
Normally I can’t stand it when cartoon animals act like humans, wearing clothes, driving vehicles, living in cities, carrying guns, etc. The only thing worse is when a movie can’t decide between animals acting like animals or acting like humans (the ultimate atrocity is Disney’s Goofy the dog, who speaks, walks upright, and wears clothing, interacting with Pluto the dog, who does none of those things). This movie kind of breaks those rules. Some animals — lizards, toads, rodents, owls — act like humans. Rango’s love interest, Miss Beans, is a pale brown lizard with a brown wig and the long dress of a turn of the century country girl. Other animals — bats, birds, bugs (except spiders) — don’t dress up or speak, but can be used as beasts of burden (or golf balls). Then there are the aberrations, like a snake who speaks (and has a machine gun for a tail) but wears only a black cowboy hat and slithers, or the previously-mentioned armadillo who has only a hat and cane but speaks the language of quasi-mystical hokum. Amazingly, it works! Partly I think it’s because the main characters are very human-like: their lips are perfectly synced with the animation, and they don’t look too much like their animal selves. For some rodents I’m not exactly sure what animals they’re supposed to be. They’re just like incredibly stylized humans.
In any case, the characters are very nicely designed. While it’s inherently a little bit cute to have talking critters in a movie, the creatures of this movie have none of Disney/Pixar’s tendency for adorableness. In fact, comparing the cartoonish chameleon from Disney’s recent movie Tangled with the realistically animated (though spindly and humanoid) Rango is hardly worthwhile except to point out how they’re from totally different universes. Even the token big-eyed-child character in this movie is some kind of dark-haired mole; not something you want your kids cuddling up with in bed.
Speaking of kids, there were a number of families with young kids at the showing I went to, but I think many of them were having a hard time staying interested. Sure, Rango and many of the others are funny looking, and kids always like talking animals, but the script was not really for them. It’s not that there were “adult” situations or language, but Rango himself likes to use bigger, multi-syllable words in place of shorter, simpler ones. Terms like “malfeasance”, “paradigm”, etc., were everywhere. I think the 3-year old in the seat behind me was getting a little fidgety. The story was similarly grown-up, dealing with themes such as the end of the Old West in the face of modern industrialization, corruption of small-town politicians, and the more philosophical theme of finding one’s identity as a means to fulfilling one’s destiny. None of those are truly kid-friendly (though the actual story arc was pretty stereotypical: unlikely hero comes to town, makes a splash, faces some setbacks, then saves the day from the bad guys).
I think that’s why I liked this movie so much. It took an archetypal Western, filled the cast with talking animals, then coated it with some humourous dialogue written for an adult’s ear. It’s actually kind of a fresh combination. So I’m really recommending this movie for adults who grew up enjoying animation, and don’t mind a bit of quirkiness over cutesiness. However, I don’t think parents with young kids should waste their hard-earned cash bringing the family to Rango, not unless your kids are a little bit too smart or odd for their age already. (4.5 out of 5)